The Chick: Nikki Carmichael. A talented chef, she's no longer cut out for restaurant work after she tears her ACL, so she goes looking for work as a private cook instead.
The Rub: All she wants is an impersonal, business relationship - but her boss wants anything but. Trouble is, she needs the money too badly to quit.
Dream Casting: Ellen Pompeo.
The Dude: Jay Buchanan. The editor of a popular men's magazine, he's sworn off women after his bachelor antics complicate a childhood friendship - but he's pretty sure the chef he's hired is a lesbian.
The Rub: Aw crap, his chef has sexy boobs. Sexy non-lesbian boobs.
Dream Casting: Bradley Cooper.
Jay: I need a chef!
Nikki: That would be me!
Jay: ....Except not a girl chef.
Needy McBigBoobs: Oh Jaaaaaay!
Jay: Fine, I still need a chef!
Nikki: Right here!
Jay: ... to be my fake girlfriend.
Jay: My fake lesbian girlfriend.
Jay: Just run with it. Gee - you're fun to have around!
Nikki: Hsssssssss, commitment, emotion, it burns us it does!
Jay: Aaaah, my lifestyle, my beautiful debauched bachelor lifestyle, WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOU??
Nikki: Let's just have mindless sex and get it over with.
Jay: *sniffle* But I want more than that.
Beautiful Debauched Bachelor Lifestyle: *fizzles* *dies*
Nikki: Hsssss! *flees*
Jay: *chases* We're getting married, dammit, and you're gonna like it!
Nikki: Oh, fine. Let's get married!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Swingin' Bachelor Journalist
1 Emotionally Closed-Off Chef
1 Dark Past
1 Fake Lesbian Girlfriend
1 Surprise! Sequel-Baiting Sister
1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
1 Secondary Romance (Needy McBigBoobs and Sex-Mex the Landscape Artist)
1 Bum Knee
1 Troubled Niece
1 Use of Fruit for Erotic Purposes
The Word: I am ashamed, dear readers. Very, very ashamed. I have not been as loyal to Christie Ridgway as I ought to have been. I quite enjoyed the first book of hers I read, way back in 2008, and since then I haven't bought another. No - I had to win this one at a raffle at RWA 2009. Shame on me, because this book is wonderful.
I remember another blogger mentioning her novels as being surprisingly dark and multidimensional despite being marketed as fluffy, breezy comedies. Don't get me wrong, there is sweetness and light in this book but there is also depth, and pain, and severe personal problems as well.
Nikki Carmichael needs a job. She's a first-class chef, but after tearing a ligament in her knee she can no longer work on her feet in the demanding restaurant setting she's used to. Thanks to some deep-seated emotional problems, knee surgery is not an option for her, so she decides to find work as a personal chef instead. She gets a phone call from editor Jay Buchanan offering her a temporary job cooking meals for himself and his niece, ending in an anniversary dinner for his parents.
Jay Buchanan is the famous editor of NYFM Magazine, which is described as Maxim only slightly classier. A former ladies' man, he's decided to give up on women for a year. Refreshingly, it's not because Dem Womens are harshing his buzz, but rather thanks to his own irresponsibility. Months ago he had a drunken one-night stand with needy childhood friend Shanna, who now wants a relationship, and he's rightfully disgusted with himself for putting her in such a painful situation. Thus, he's given up on ladykilling - however, he still has no idea how to reject Shanna's increasingly hopeless advances without wounding her further.
When Nikki shows up in person to accept his job offer, he nearly fires her on the spot. Since Nikki came recommended to him by a lesbian acquaintance, he assumed she played for the other team too, but after one look at her he knows she's as straight as he is. This puts a serious crimp on his whole "avoiding women" deal. However, when Shanna drops by at the same time, he devises another use for Nikki: he claims she's his girlfriend, hoping Shanna will finally take the hint. In private, however, he insists Nikki be a lesbian - a resolution destined for failure, if the red-hot, instantaneous chemistry between the two is anything to go by.
However, this isn't just some wa-ha-hacky "they have to pretend they love each other" plot, but rather a way to explore Nikki's issues and Jay's evolving expectations. Yes, beneath the light-hearted "fake relationship" plot lies a very damaged heroine who never completely recovered from a horrific event in her past. She blames her own emotional vulnerability after her mother's death for the trauma she endured and has since completely shut herself away from all emotional ties in a way that's almost pathological. She has no friends. Her apartment is bland and neutral. Her only "pet" is a plastic fish that needs to be wound up now and again to swim around in its tank.
Jay won't let her just be a personal chef, though. He continually nudges into her personal space, forcing her to feel because he can't help but feel for her. She's helped along by the presence of Jay's teenage niece Fern, who's living with Jay while their parents are on a cruise. Even though Nikki's spent her life keeping out of other people's, she can't help but notice that Fern's relationship with a local boy is a lot like the disastrous one she had at the same age, which challenges her determination to remain uninvolved. As well, after she ducks into a yarn and knitting shop called Malibu & Ewe, she encounters the friendly, sequel-baiting owner Cassie who seems to know more about Nikki than she lets on.
Nikki, as a character, is mesmerizing. It seems I have a taste for damaged, emotionally shut-off heroines (see my love for Jo Goodman and Laura Kinsale as an example), because I loved reading about Nikki. In many ways she's selfish, cowardly, and pitiable - but also strong and determined to move on from what happened to her, which was truly awful and in keeping with how her character evolved from that experience. In many ways, I think Shanna's part in the book is to work in contrast to Nikki - as someone who emotionally gloms onto other people and suffers from cripplingly low self-esteem, she comes across as a far weaker person than Nikki.
That being said, even Shanna's character is developed enough for a light secondary romance with Jay's BFF. Fern's plotline, despite its brevity, is also richly drawn (even if its conclusion is a little pat). The Malibu & Ewe shop (which apparently plays a part in all three books in this series, including Unravel Me and Dirty Sexy Knitting) is supportive of the story without becoming intrusive, and the sequel baiting is there but kept to a nice minimum.
But let's talk about the best part of this book, shall we? The hero. Jay. Mmmmmmmm, Jay! He's just the man Nikki needs and his romantic evolution is the highlight of the novel. Yes, he's still a bit of a player at the beginning of the novel, but even then he realizes there are consequences to his actions and that he needs to clean up his act. At first, Nikki seems like his Perfect Woman - she doesn't want to get involved, she doesn't want to talk about her feelings, she doesn't want to blubber about her problems.
However, Jay can't help but notice what she doesn't say, the little things about herself she doesn't even know she's revealing, that turn on his empathy. He's a secret nurturer and he doesn't even know it until he's pulling his hair out whenever Nikki stubs her toe. By then it's too late, and it's wonderful and funny to read how he struggles against how much he feels for her and how much he reacts to her pain. My favourite scenes in the novel are Jay's reaction when Nikki reveals her past, as well as their first sex scene. So tender and sweet. Jay is a wonderful hero.
How To Knit A Wild Bikini may sound like a wispy meringue of a romance, but it is so much more than that. Well-developed characters, moving drama, nicely-paced secondary narratives, healing, sisterhood, an irresistible hero, all topped with humour. Beneath the meringue topping is a devil's food cake of lurve.
And this time I'm coming back for seconds. Ahem, as soon as my Lenten book-ban is over.